Anthropology’s Symbiotic Relationship with Photogr

aphy9/25/1999Anthropology 174It is by no coincidence that the fields of photography andanthropology have evolved together. At the very least, photography and thevisual representation of so-called “primitive” peoples have legitimized andmainstreamed the field of anthropology. Anthropologists have been called”merchants of the exotic,” a reputation well deserved based on the earlyperiod of ethnographic photography. In many cases anthropologists have beenaware of this reputation and exploited it, to promote interest in theirwork. In many other cases however anthropologists have had a genuineinterest in promoting enlightenment and understanding of nonwesterncultures, yet have still missed the mark and spread stigma and stereotypeinstead. Photography and visual representation is a very powerful medium(in both productive and destructive ways) which probably was not fullyappreciated at its inception, but is perhaps more understandable inretrospect.The first photographs were modeled after the two modes of painting(portraiture and landscape, or “scenes”), which were the only other form oftwo-dimensional visual representation at the time.

This can be seen in theearly ethnographic photos of Rudolph Poch, who posed his subjects invarious positions and stood in the midst of them looking far off into thedistance (probably thinking himself a very great man).As the field of photography progressed, and photographers began todiscover new uses and possibilities of photography (i.e. other than justreally realistic-looking paintings), the medium developed new meaning, andattracted new interests. Of these new interests anthropologists toodiscovered photography as a tool for a wider range of uses.

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Elizabeth Edwards, summarizing Rochelle Kolodny outlines threefunctions of photography underlying its use today. The first isromanticism, which is based on the tradition of painting and art.Romanticism is concerned with aesthetics, and a romantically modeledphotograph would be one in which it is clear that the photograph was takenbecause either the subject was aesthetically pleasing, or something aboutthe way the frame was arranged was aesthetically pleasing. Under theromantic model, since the purpose is to end up with a good-looking picture,the photographer has a role in structuring and posing the subjects in theframe. Second, there is realism, which is the mode of photography in whichthe photographer’s intent is to record facts. In this mode the photographertries to capture a real situation, photographs are not posed, or it isclear that the photograph was taken to record the realistic characteristicsof a subject. Lastly, the documentary model (which can include elements ofthe above two) is operating when the photographer’s intent is to make somesort of statement about the subject, either a social or politicalstatement.Normally when we view photographs we view them without criticism.

Wesee a picture and assume it is what it is. To different people a picturemay have different meaning, depending on culture, experience or backgroundknowledge, and a picture’s meaning may change over time as its viewers ageor it is viewed by different generations with different values. This is thepassive quality of photography that Edwards points out in her introductorychapter. But she also suggests that photography has an assertive quality;photographs can be structured in a way to convey a certain meaning.

Inaddition to the three models that Edwards presents, she says that each canbe broken down into four, what she calls “facets.” The facets are reallyquestions that can be asked about the pictures, the answers to which speakvolumes about the photographer, a party to the photograph who usuallyremains unscrutinized.The facets are, first, the assumptions about the nature of the worldas defined by the role of the images. Second, the aspects of the creatingculture to which the images connect. Third, the ideological frameworkswhich the images uphold, and lastly, the function of each model orframework.Consider the photograph of a Motu girl paddling a canoe (p. 162 inEdwards’ book). The photograph, which was probably posed, was done in theromantic mode of photography, because the primary purpose of thephotographer was not to convey facts of native life or native culture(realism), nor does there seem to be much of a social or politicalstatement that this photograph is making.

The photographer’s intent seemspretty clearly to be to capture this girl’s beauty and grace as she paddlesdown the river. She is looking right into the camera as she paddles,something she probably wouldn’t be doing had the photograph been takenspontaneously, or if she really were busily paddling away.Applying the four facets of the romantic model allows us to askquestions of the photographer. Edwards suggests that the romantic model ofphotography is based on the ideological framework of idealism (the thirdfacet) and that the function of this framework is redemptive (the fourthfacet). This leaves the question of the first two facets, that is, what arethe assumptions about the nature of the world as defined by the role of theimage, and which aspects of the creating culture does the photographconnect to? To answer the last question, the aspects of the creatingculture that the photograph connect to is fairly obvious; the picture ismodeled after European paintings.

If the woman had had blonde hair, fairskin and less tattoos she would be indistinguishable from subjects of manyother romantic paintings done the century before. The connection is thatthis woman is made to looks like a variation of a western ideal of beauty,which serves to redeem her (from being “savage?”) in the eyes ofwesterners. Furthermore, keeping in mind the framework (idealism), itsfunction (redemption) and the connection (western ideals of beauty), it canbe further deduced from the photo that that the photographer holds certainassumptions about the nature of the world.

Namely, that this woman and herculture need redeeming at all.Photography has tremendous power, in part for the reason mentionedabove: because we now frequently assume a realistic model, people rarelyquestion the structure of photographs. They are after all supposed to beaccurate portrayals of whatever the camera is pointed at. Howeverphotographs are intentionally structured and can be structured to portraywhat the photographer intends. Ethnographic photography especially then hasserious moral implications, outcomes of which could determine the survivalor independence of an entire culture.Photography during the early period of anthropology was often abusedas a method of displaying the exotic, or making native peoples appearsilly, unintelligent or fierce (see p. 13, plate 7 of Edwards’ book). Ibelieve anthropologists should be wary in general of posed pictures inanthropology, since the doctrine of anthropology is primarily to observe,not to create.

Photography has a number of other constructive roles in anthropologybesides the illustration of native people and cultures for western eyes.Photography in modern anthropology has evolved into a research tool itself.There are three phases of ethnographic inquiry, as outlined by JohnCollier, Jr. and Malcolm Collier. First there is the introductory phase, ororientation.

After an anthropologist has been introduced to and orientedwith the community under study s/he can move into in-depth fieldwork andnarrow her scope to the goals of the research (which is the second phase).Finally when she feels she has gathered sufficient data, she’ll synthesizeher findings into an article or ethnography. Photography has an importantrole in each of the three phases of research..In the first phase an anthropologist or ethnographer usually has justarrived in the community to be studied. At a time when the anthropologistis totally unfamiliar with her surroundings taking pictures gives hersomething productive to do.

The first images of her surroundings at thispoint have no pertinent meaning to her. As Collier and Collier put it, theinitial photographs are the first step toward learning “. . . the visuallanguage of a new cultural ecology.” (p. 20) These initial photographswill not only help to orient the anthropologist but will also be useful inlater stages of the research.

Photographing the land surrounding the community and the exterior ofthe village is also important in the early stages of research. For one, itaides the researcher in learning more quickly how to get around, as a kindof photographic map. In addition these photographs provide context to theresearch. Later they can be studied to deduce important knowledge about thepeople, such as how they make use of their land, what their farmingtechniques are , whether they produce crops or livestock, how they organizetheir village and what the hierarchy is ( if there is one). NapoleonChagnon for example, in his study of the Yanamama was interested inhorticultural land use and the rotation of their gardens.

He stood on ahill top and took survey pictures of the surrounding land to document therotation.If one has access to it, aerial photography can reveal even more abouta community, including the community’s relationship to nearby villages, amore accurate survey of land use, nearby natural resources and roads, whichcan be evidence of trading patterns.Photography has its greatest utilitarian value in the second phase ofethnographic inquiry. In the spirit of realism, photography can aide anethnographer in making a cultural inventory of the physical items in aculture. An inventory with still photography can capture so much more thanwritten notes or even moving pictures. When taking notes an anthropologistwill write down only the things notable to her/him at that time.

If theanthropologist is still at a fairly early stage in the research she maymiss things, or the absence of things that have yet to become significantto her. In addition, it is tedious work writing down and describingeverything you see. A photograph captures the image of what’s in the roomalmost perfectly, and allows the eye to roam each corner of the frame,catching all the background details, without the objects moving ordistracting activity. From a cultural inventory a myriad of questions canbe asked and answered of the people, such as: What is kept inside thehouse? Are the objects utilitarian or aesthetic in nature? Examiningobjects that are valued enough to keep around can lend insight into valuesystems themselves. An anthropologist might also examine where thingsinside the house are placed in relation to each other.

This may providesome insight into how the people organize and categorize things andactivities in their minds.Still photography images of technology are useful, perhaps were moreuseful before the advent of moving image. Because technology and tools maybe tedious to describe, and also because technology is only meaningful inuse and in relationship to a user, visual images of a foreign technologyare indispensable to its understanding. One limitation to still photographsof foreign technology is obvious: the viewer can’t see the technology inaction.

In his chapter on interviewing informants with photographs, Collierasserts that the photo-interview and projective interpretation by thenative is perhaps the best use of the camera in the field of anthropologyand the only way to truly exploit its full record.In the first place a photograph can serve as an icebreaker in thecommunity (or “can-opener”) and in relationships with informants; they mayfeel honored that you chose to photograph them or something they’re proudof, or you may be able to use photographs of them and the community (takenduring the slow days of phase one) to strike up conversations. In aninterview with photographs the photos can serve as starting points andreference points of the conversation, giving the anthropologist the powerto guide the interview (she chooses which ones to bring) without having tobe verbally assertive.

The interview is less of an interrogation and moreof a conversation.In the final phase of ethnographic study, conclusion and synthesis,photos serve as illustrations and provide visual context. There have beenattempts to use photography as a primary research tool, an effort called”saturated photography,” But these efforts in the end have not come tomuch, primarily for the same reason that photographs are so useful ininterviews.

That is, it takes another medium, such as spoken word or text,to convey the meaning and intent of the visual representation; theinterpretation of visual media varies with culture and value systems and sowithout some sort of guided interpretation via another medium, purelyvisual interpretation is mere speculation.Photography then has had a huge impact on anthropology; without it, onecould speculate the field may not even exist, or not to the extent that itdoes today. Photographs give anthropologists a tremendous amount of power,which they are expected to exercise wisely and morally. But anthropologydoes not stand on photography alone, and without written word and film, theanthropological body of knowledge would not be as rich as it is today.